- Climbing to Get Fit and For a Living
- Adventures for Expats and Tourists
- Teaching and Developing Skills
- Inaccessible Areas and Multi-Day Traverses
- Staying Safe in the Mountains
- Ending with a Hot Spring and a Local Beer
Climbing to Get Fit and For a Living
After signing up for the “Introduction to Snow Mountaineering”, I was picked up by David up on a Saturday evening from Sagamiko station, one hour from Shinjuku. He arrived in a large white van, even though I was the only passenger; the other participants were already on the mountain, having signed on for an extra day of ice climbing.
We spent the night in a tent at a “michi no eki” (a roadside rest area), near the turn-off for Yatsugatake. David had spoken little, obviously tired from a full day of ice climbing, and fell asleep almost immediately. I realised I didn’t know much about the person next to me, who would be teaching me how to stay safe climbing on snow for the next two days. However, on top of my friend’s recommendation, the online reviews were excellent, so I knew I was in good hands.
“I decided I didn’t want to sit behind a desk and stare at a computer for the rest of my life.”
How did you get started with doing outdoor activities?
DN: I was studying computer science at university, and I had gained a bunch of weight, so I needed to get into better shape. I took a class called “Introduction to Outdoor Adventure”. After a multi-day sea kayaking camping trip, I realized there was another path. At the end of that semester, I moved to a different school, and started studying outdoor education. After university, I moved from North Carolina to Portland, and then later to Seattle. I spent a lot of time out on the Cascades where I picked up snow mountaineering and more technical climbing. I decided I didn’t want to sit behind a desk and stare at a computer for the rest of my life.
“I want people to learn something, to gain some independence, to get something out of it, and to build on themselves”
How did you get from doing outdoor activities in your free time in the Cascades to doing them as a business in Japan?
DN: After university, I was working in the military recreation programs in the States. They offer recreation programs for the military and their family members, since they’re always moving around and don’t have local knowledge [of the areas they’re stationed in]. They’re also the biggest employer of people with recreation and outdoor education degrees. Later on, I decided I wanted to experience living abroad. I lived in Korea for a little bit, and then came to Japan doing a teaching job. Then, I got a job working on a US Navy base in Sasebo [in Kyushu] managing their outdoor recreation program. I was only there for a couple of years. It’s a nice place, but the mountains weren’t big enough to keep me happy. I wanted to come back to the Tokyo area because I really liked the mountains here, and the atmosphere was a really good fit for me.
DN: So I moved back with plans to start up Kanto Adventures. I was teaching English at a mobile game company, while I was starting this business on the weekends. As this grew, and more weekday stuff was coming in, I scaled back my weekday job, and this became my full-time gig. About three years ago, I established it as a limited liability corporation. Nobody else in Japan is doing this stuff in English. That’s one of the reasons I started this business because I thought there was a need.
One reviewer on Tripadvisor described you as an “Adventure Facilitator” – did you coin that term?
DN: Yes I did. I feel like the majority of time I’m not really guiding. I feel it’s more like facilitating. I don’t really like the term guiding, where you’re just leading the way and saying let’s go this way. I want people to learn something, to gain some independence, to get something out of it, and to build on themselves, which is a facilitation process, versus just leading the way.
Adventures for Expats and Tourists
We got up before dawn. Once the tent was packed, David drove us from the “michi no eki” to the start of the trail, where he left the van. From there, we followed a fairly easy path along a snowy forested river valley. This was my first time to see Yatsugatake covered in snow, and I was amazed by the magical scenery. “Climbing up snow and ice is just prettier,” David told me, “snow in the mountains is quite limited; the majority of the time things are green and brown, but when it’s white, it’s just it’s a different place, a different world.”
At 8am we reached the mountain hut and joined the rest of our group. We were already 2250 meters high, and still below the treeline, but the snow-covered top ridge was clearly visible. I found out that the other participants had climbed with David several times before, and some of them together, and there was a comfortable and friendly atmosphere from the start. One immediate advantage was that they all knew what needed to be done, so everything proceeded smoothly, especially the dinner preparations inside the hut. Of course, I wasn’t left out and was given my share of tasks in the group effort.
“We have a core group of people who join frequently, so it feels more like a community.”
Can you tell us more about Kanto Adventures? What kind of adventures do you organise, and for who?
DN: There are two sides to the business. First we have the “weekend adventures”, focused on expats living in Tokyo. We also get a number of Japanese people who like the international atmosphere. We have a core group of people who join frequently, so it feels more like a community. It’s one of the reasons we have to always keep coming up with new stuff for these “weekend adventures”, which keeps it interesting for me.
“My big goal is to get overseas visitors exposed to the other big mountains, like the Japanese Alps”
DN: The other side of the business is on weekdays, targeting inbound tourists. The biggest part of that is definitely Mt Fuji, the majority of it being off-season, from May to early November. However, my big goal is to get overseas visitors exposed to the other big mountains, like the Japanese Alps, that nobody knows about. Everybody comes asking to climb Mt Fuji. “Can you take me up Fuji in March?” “No, I don’t do that, but here are some other great options.” Once I show them pictures, they’re like: “wow, these are real mountains”, and about a quarter of those people are willing to try something different. I think the biggest problem is that these other mountains aren’t well covered in travel or outdoor magazines. We’re grinding away at trying to make people aware they exist, and also help climb them – not just Mt Fuji.
Teaching and Developing Skills
On a small slope next to the mountain hut, David instructed us on the basics of snow climbing. First, he told us everything we needed to know, clearly and concisely. Then, he demonstrated the proper way to walk with crampons and hold an ice axe. Finally, he let himself slide down a short slope, and showed us how to self-arrest using an ice axe from various positions, including head first.
Then it was our turn. I was a beginner, but for some in the group it was a refresher. At first, I found it tricky. but I soon got the hang of it. While we practiced, David was busy giving us individual feedback. At the end of this short course, I felt ready for some snow climbing. I realised that, done under the right conditions, climbing in the snow was as safe as other outdoor activities. “I don’t like to think I’m into dangerous stuff, “David explained, “I like physical and mental challenges; the challenge to push yourself, to be on top of the mountain.”
“Hanging on the side of a cliff is no big deal for me.”
What mountain skills do you enjoy teaching?
DN: I really like teaching technical stuff. I’m a big nerd with rescue skills and rope work and things like that. Rock climbing skills are probably my favorite thing to teach at all levels from beginners. I remember the first time I ever rock climbed outside, it was this huge adventure. Now, hanging on the side of a cliff is no big deal for me. Taking people from nothing to being able to do this stuff, it’s a pretty big step, more mentally than physically, because pretty much anybody can rock climb if they can hike.
“You can see people developing and getting stronger, and moving into more difficult stuff”
What level are most of your participants?
DN: The majority of what we do is mid-range or intermediate. We used to have a subjective “easy moderate challenging” rating system, but after getting complaints from people saying: “this isn’t moderate, this is difficult”, I developed my own rating system that has separate technical ability and physical fitness levels. Since then, people have a better understanding of what they’re getting into. If an adventure is above a “Level 2B” for us, we screen participants, by asking them about their hiking history and fitness ability.
DN: Since we have so many people joining on a regular basis, we get people who have never climbed a mountain before, and they’re climbing level one hikes, and then you can see them developing and getting stronger, and moving into more difficult stuff. So I might tell them: “next year you’re going to climb this mountain”, and they’re setting the goal for something bigger, and that’s really good. It goes back to the feeling of community: you’re dealing with a small population of people who join regularly. In a way my social group is my job.
So do you have much time for your own climbing outside your job?
DN: Right now I have 2 kids, so I don’t do that much climbing on my own. I take my son hiking – he’s three and a half, and he’s already climbing smaller mountains. I take him hiking whenever I have some free time, and he likes to sleep in a tent. Recently I bought a climbing harness for him, so we’re going to start with some climbing.
That’s great! and your wife doesn’t mind?
DN: Not really, since she’s a rock climber too.
Inaccessible Areas and Multi-Day Traverses
After completing our “Introduction to Snow Mountaineering”, we climbed Mt Io, another Yatsugatake peak. The trail never got too steep, so it was the perfect warm-up for our big climb planned for the next day. During the afternoon, the clouds had rolled in, and it was snowing gently, adding to the challenge. Overall, I had a fun time practicing walking up and down in the snow using crampons and an ice axe for the first time.
Back down, we retreated to the hut for some warmth and dinner. Although David is a vegetarian, he cooks simple and tasty meat dishes. I didn’t expect to eat so well up on the mountain! That night we slept in a tent. Although it was freezing cold outside, our sleeping bags kept us warm and comfortable. Before turning off our headlights, we anxiously discussed the forecast for the next day. Would the weather improve by the time we set off for the ascent of Mt Akadake?
“I like it because it’s so inaccessible”
What is your favorite place to take people?
DN: I think my favourite place to take people is Mt Tsurugi in the Northern Alps. It’s not an easy place to get to since you have to take this complicated Alpine route with buses and tunnels, and a ropeway. But I like it because it’s so inaccessible. I especially like the fall time because the fall colours are nice, and the summer crowds aren’t there.
DN: Something I’d like to do more of are multi-day traverses of different parts of the Japanese Alps. That’s really hard to do with people who are living and working here because they would have to take vacation time, but it would be a good fit for inbound tourists who are into serious hiking. It’s just a matter of gathering enough people at the same time.
“My extreme level has dropped down a little bit in the last two winters”
Would you stay in tents and self-cater on such a multi-day traverse?
DN: More recently, I’ve tried to set up most of my adventures where we have the option of a mountain hut or a tent. So people can choose to spend a little more money and go light. If it’s going to be in the summertime in the Japanese Alps, and you’re taking people that don’t have any dietary restrictions, then it’s better to keep things simple and comfortable, and eat meals at the hut and only carry lunch and snacks. My extreme level has dropped down a little bit in the last two winters. I had surgery on my foot for a long term problem, and after that I wasn’t able to carry a heavy bag for a while. I was still able to get up to the mountains, but I had to stay in the hut if it was overnight, and I started getting used to the luxury.
Sorry to hear about your foot.
DN: Well, my foot is completely fixed now: we did a ten-day trek in the European Alps back in September.
So even though the business is called “Kanto Adventures”, the adventures aren’t limited to the Tokyo area?
DN: After starting the company, the official company name became the “Japan Adventure Group”, but we don’t really do any marketing under that name. We’ve already got this reputation built, and there are a lot of articles online. However, all of our adventures start in the Kanto area. Even when we go to Europe, we leave from Tokyo.
Staying Safe in the Mountains
After I signed up for the “Introduction to Snow Mountaineering”, I got an email from David asking me to make sure I had my own accident insurance. Getting insurance for mountain climbing wasn’t something I had considered before. I found that Mont Bell offered a very affordable 3-day package, exactly what I needed for Yatsugatake. Recently, I’ve decided to use their yearly coverage: it costs only a few hundred yen a month. “I think a lot of people, especially foreigners living here, don’t have accident insurance or don’t know about it,” David told me, “I mean, it’s super cheap”.
When we woke up on the day of the climb up Mt Akadake, it was a total whiteout outside. It had stopped snowing, but the conditions were far from ideal. We decided to postpone the departure until the mist lifted. As we waited in the warmth of the hut, other climbers were returning from their ascent, their eyebrows and eyelashes white with frost, a sign of the freezing conditions outside. Eventually, patches of blue sky appeared, so we put on our crampons and set off.
Most climbers had already summited, and we were nearly alone on the mountain. The sun had come out, but the wind remained strong – it had blown the snow clear off the upper reaches, and my crampons occasionally clinked on the exposed rocks. We reached the narrow top around mid-morning. I was moved by the panoramic views and to be standing on the highest point of Mt Yatsugatake in the middle of winter. It wasn’t an experience I had contemplated having just a few months ago.
“You want to make sure nobody’s going to end up getting a big helicopter bill if something does happen”
Since you go on adventures in the mountains…have you ever had any accidents?
DN: I haven’t had any major accidents with people in my career. We’ve had the occasional cuts that needed stitches, snow blindness once, but nothing super serious. About 3 years ago, we were hiking in Nikko near Karikomi Lake, a very easy hike. After we went to the lakes and had some lunch, we were walking back, and we found a man [not from our group] with a broken leg. He had slipped in the wrong place, got his leg wedged between two rocks and snapped over it. He was with his wife, but they really didn’t know what to do. They had called their hotel who had called an ambulance, but an ambulance wasn’t going to come out into the mountains.
DN: I’m a Wilderness First Responder so I did the initial first aid by setting up a proper splint on his leg. Then we got the mountain rescue process started: we improvised a stretcher using two long, strong sticks and everybody’s rain jackets folded over in the right way; we then popped him in there, and started carrying him off the mountain. We met the fire department’s Mountain Rescue Squad, about halfway down and transferred him over to them.
Do participants on your adventures need to have accident insurance beforehand?
DN: We arrange accident insurance for all participants. You want to make sure that nobody’s going to end up getting a big helicopter bill if something does happen, for example if you break an ankle and have to be helicoptered up. We’ve got a deal set up so we’re able to offer that as part of our fees. For the winter adventures, we cannot arrange it directly, so as a requirement for joining anything that involves an ice axe and crampons, participants have to have their own rescue insurance.
“The positive experiences that other people are having makes it interesting”
Since everything takes place outdoors, how does the weather impact your adventures?
DN: It definitely impacts them. There was the typhoon Hagibis in October on a three day weekend. I was supposed to take a group of nine people across the Northern Alps and we had to cancel the whole thing. So the weather definitely has a financial impact. But I think we do enough over the whole year that we can take a hit every now and then. We did 29 climbs on Mt Fuji from May to November.
That’s a lot! Do you still enjoy climbing Mt Fuji?
DN: Climbing Mt Fuji isn’t anything special for me. It’s the experience that participants have [that makes it special for me]. The people I’m taking up, for a lot of them, this is their first real snow climb or real mountaineering experience, and it has a huge impact on them. So I get something out of that. I don’t get anything out of climbing that mountain over and over. The positive experiences that other people are having makes it interesting every time I go back.
Ending with a Hot Spring and a Local Beer
Since we had left later than planned, we took the same route up and down, instead of doing a loop. Coming back down the steep snowy slope above the treeline, I became aware that if I fell, I would slide all the way down, unless I managed to self-arrest using the ice-axe. I was reminded that the hardest part of mountaineering is often the descent. I proceeded slowly and cautiously, making sure to apply the techniques I had learned the previous day.
We were all safely back at the mountain hut by the early afternoon. Those who had arrived first, took the lead by taking down and packing the tent. We then made our way down the snowy valley to David’s white van. On the drive back, we stopped by an onsen (Japanese hot spring). Although David had mentioned it in the program, my first winter climbing experience had made me completely forget about it. A hot spring bath always feels great but this time it felt doubly good after the polar conditions on top of the mountain, and the effort of the climb.
Some of your adventures end at a local beer brewery or a whiskey distillery. That’s a nice touch – where did you get that idea from?
DN: One of the things I miss from back in the States after climbing a mountain, is having a beer on the way home. We didn’t have hot springs back there, so our way to end the trip together was often with a beer. When we find a good mountain here that lines up with a local brewery or distillery, then why not? I’m driving, so I don’t get to enjoy it, but I get to share that experience with other people.
So you’re bringing an experience from the US to Japan?
DN: It’s a little something extra, an add-on. For some people, just hiking might not be enough, since they can go on their own, but combining these things together can get them to join. We tend to do that with the easier adventures, so it’s kind of an introduction to Kanto adventures.
I prefer to hike alone but I really like the idea!
DN: I’m quite the opposite, I don’t like to hike alone, so this is the perfect business for me to be in. One of my goals when building adventures is to make the cost comparable to doing it by yourself via public transport. Because of that, we get a lot of experienced people that are perfectly capable of doing these things on their own. Finally, you never have to worry about catching a bus, so you have time for the hot spring at the end.
You also host people at your home in the mountains near Hanno, which is called Hiker’s B&B. Can you tell us about that?
DN: We started doing the Hiker’s B&B about two and a half years ago, but right now we’re taking a break because we’re busy with our baby daughter. She was born at the end of June. However, we’re still doing group parties, and our own group events like Thanksgiving dinner. I’m always open to proposals.
Do you have any final words for our readers?
DN: There are big, awesome mountains in Japan, other than Mt Fuji, which is a great mountain to look at, but not the greatest mountain to climb. I want to make you aware that there are some really amazing world-class mountains here. That’s my big mission.
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